Detroit reporter recalls ‘magnetic’ Kwame Kilpatrick’s rise and fall

When the dirt began to rise to the surface, it was painful for a city that had not yet completely found its footing

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Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick speaks at the Welcome to Detroit press conference at the Super Bowl XL Media Center at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan on January 30, 2006. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

DETROIT – When I moved to Detroit, my father asked me not to come. 

He said it was too dangerous. And that’s the contextual backdrop for Kwame Kilpatrick in my long experience with this city. A town that had not returned from the ashes of the 1967 rebellion and ensuing riots simply continued to hold on by splintering fingernails -- and gravity was pulling against the Motor City -- the Arsenal of Democracy, the birthplace of the Motown Sound, the border city of Windsor with its beautiful misused waterfront. 

The city of Detroit had all the ingredients to be successful, but it wasn’t.

Downtown had very few places to even eat a meal, of which there was a Subway and a Quiznos, and the Quiznos closed. That, too, is the contextual backdrop for Kwame Kilpatrick.

I remember covering Dennis Archer’s ascent to the mayor’s office, and I remember walking Downtown and there was more light in the air. People had a sense of hopefulness. The feeling was palpable. But when Kwame Kilpatrick was elected mayor, it was absolutely electric. He was lively, youthful, flashy, bold, energetic and magnetic. At his inauguration, people flooded the stage, because everyone wanted to be near the so-called hip-hop mayor with the big diamond in his ear and his beautiful family. His opinion of Detroit was contagious -- it could be felt in the neighborhoods and a coming commerce.

And things really started turning around in the city. No doubt the dollars in Dan Gilbert’s pocket and the possibility to build and own a city will be debated, but the fact of the matter is the energy Kilpatrick brought with his mayorship was undeniable.

There was talk that he could have been governor or even president. He was smart, charismatic and that word again, magnetic.

But when the dirt began to rise to the surface -- the pay-to-play atmosphere, the rumors, the innuendo and yes, the betrayal, not only to his own family, but his own city -- it was painful for a city that had not yet completely found its footing. It was Robin Hood stealing from his own band of merry citizens. It was devastating.

Yet the city was split: Those who were angry at the waste of potential, those who were not angry enough.

For a man who was able to once sit on a witness stand and declare that he had never had any contact with the law, it seemed as though he had been lawless. Consumed with greed of power and greed of flesh, and he paid for it all with his impoverished City. And there was a petulance about it.  Not a mea-culpa, not an admission, simply an anger at being caught, and the indignation of being held accountable.

Kwame Kilpatrick remains an enigma. The brilliance of the brightest star. A man uncareful about his own personal wants. A city so happy to have him, betrayed for him having been here.

Whether or not he was over sentenced will be debated for years. Whether race played a part in that long sentence will be debated for years. Whether or not Detroit could have become a turnaround town sooner will be debated for years. The legacy of Kwame will always be a litany of what-ifs.  Simply put, Kwame will always be debated in this town.

There are few people who are known by one name, but for Kwame that one name carries such a sad weight of loss and waste.

The city of Detroit has moved on without him, without really moving on without him, at all.

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